photo credit: Dean Budnick
In 1973, Brian Ray was an 18-year old guitarist and singer from Southern California- a newly-minted high school graduate- when he was introduced to the R&B legend, Etta James. Ray would serve as James’ guitarist and musical director for a decade-and-a-half during a career resurgence for the iconic singer that included touring as a support artist for The Rolling Stones. A successful songwriting career and roving tour appearances in France bridged the time between his duties with James and an opportunity in 2002 for Ray to perform with Paul McCartney at the Super Bowl. That one-off gig became the first of hundreds over the next 17 years as the guitarist, bassist, and singer in the former Beatle’s touring band. When not performing McCartney’s immense catalog of songs, classic and current, Ray maintains a steady solo output, issuing albums and singles most often heard on Little Steven Van Zandt’s SiriusXM outlet, Underground Garage. Ray spoke to us from his home in Los Angeles shortly after completing his latest tour with Sir Paul.
In July you wrapped up Paul McCartney’s Freshen Up tour with a show at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Do you know what’s coming next with Paul?
If I did know I wouldn’t be able to tell you. But I can tell you right now it’s safe to say we’re in a holding pattern. Paul has a book he just finished, Hey Grandude, and he’s doing a book tour. It’s probably a great palate cleanser for him because we’ve been hitting it so hard for so long.
Yes, this February it’ll be 18 years that this same group of musicians has been touring with Paul McCartney. That’s longer than The Beatles or any of the Wings bands were together. What do you suspect is the reason this same band has stayed together?
I guess he just ran out of phone numbers. (Laughs) I guess it says that Paul has made choices that work for him and that says a lot about his bandleader management skills. It’s also about trust, and we’ve gained and earned the trust he places in us. So after 18 years we’re the guys he calls. Paul McCartney could call anybody and he calls us. We’re very, very honored. It’s great to have his trust.
Before McCartney, you spent a long time with another music icon, Etta James. How do you compare that experience?
I was with Etta for 15 years, and then off-and-on for another few decades of touching base; writing; producing; doing film music. She even appeared on my first solo album, Mondo Magneto, on a song called “Soft Machine,” back in 2005. For me, those are the two most significant artists I’ve worked with. With Etta I was a newbie, a little skinny blond kid from Glendale, and she took me under her wing. She trusted me in the same way Paul trusts me. We formed a bond that was singular. In a way, she was like a second mother to me. I went through some formative years with her. I was 18 when I met her so that was my college. I went to the college of Etta James. We went from playing in a cinder-block chitlin’ circuit bar in Colorado Springs to opening for the Rolling Stones in a matter of four years.
Was it a good time in Etta’s career to be working with her?
She was gaining steam with promoters again after having lost their trust as a result of being a heroin addict. It’s well-known. I’m not breaking any codes here. My relationship with Etta was long and lovely, tumultuous and exciting, maddening and very, very colorful.
Every night with Paul you are playing so many songs that are basically in the bloodstream of millions of people. I would imagine it was a little bit like that playing “At Last” with Etta every show, where an audience expects to hear it done in that classic way.
Funny enough, we didn’t start playing that song until I’d been in the band about two years. We did more blues and rockin’ numbers and some covers. When she gained traction, she went over her set and decided it was time to start honoring her own legacy in the form of songs she’d made indelible. When we started playing it, it was part of a medley, with a little piano intro to it, but it didn’t pay attention to the lovely, interesting string lines that open the record. Other than that, it was always going to be in that tempo, done that way. Performing it live, she took more liberties, being in the moment. But, wow, that song! There’s a reason why it’s played at more weddings than any other song. It’s such a great, great romantic track.
Are there songs you haven’t done but would like to with McCartney?
Plenty. I’d love to do “Back Seat of My Car.” I’d love to do “Junk.” I think that’s a lovely melody. I’d like to do “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which, for an American kid, is pretty much the one that busted The Beatles open. I would love to open a show sometime with that. That’d be fun.
Being on the other side, the inside, of the McCartney-Beatle experience, do you understand it differently than you did when you were growing up as a fan?
I didn’t understand it any differently than I always have. If you have one word to describe it, it’s phenomena. And the reasons are many. First, they were damn good. The songs were unbelievable. They were perfect. The voices were convincing. The performances on the instruments were also full of conviction. They were on it; ready to go. The Beatles were not there to mess around.
Before this, what was your experience as a bassist?
Most guitar players play a lot of bass. Playing bass was something I did a lot at home, on my recordings, on demos. But I’d never played bass in a band.
And now you play bass in front of tens of thousands in McCartney’s band when he’s playing guitar or keyboards. How does that happen?
The opportunity to play with Paul was really the result of my friendship with (McCartney’s drummer) Abe Laboriel, Jr., with whom I’d toured all around France in the ‘90s. Shortly after Paul hired Abe to play on his Driving Rain album I happened to be at a party with Abe. I said, ‘Who’s going to play bass when Paul plays guitar or piano?’ He said they were looking for a guitar player who plays a bit of bass. I put my right hand up and said, ‘I’d love a shot at that.’ He said he’d see what he could do. He told David Kahn, Paul’s producer, pretty quickly thereafter that I would be up for it.
That’s how you got hired?
Two weeks later I got a call from David Kahn. He asked me about coming in for a meet-up in reference to playing one song at the pre-game show for the Super Bowl in 2002 and would I be up for that? I said, Hell, yeah. The next day I met David at his office and we talked a bit. I played a little guitar, talked a bit, played a little bass, talked a bit. At the end he said he had a good feeling about it, and though he couldn’t promise anything, he’d put my name forward. The next morning I got a call from Paul’s office asking if I could be on a plane tomorrow. So, it was a call on a Monday night, a meeting on Tuesday, a call on a Wednesday, rehearsal on Thursday; just like that.
So the audition was the meeting in Kahn’s office?
The audition was that 2002 Super Bowl in New Orleans. After (the appearance) we were in our box seats at the Super Bowl and Paul introduced me to Wynonna Judd by saying [the performance] was my audition, and we laughed; a nice, little intimate affair with 70,000 people and five billion watching at home.
Did you feel you had passed the audition?
I thought that was it and we’d go our separate ways. We went to the hotel bar for a drink after the game. After talking at the bar, Paul gave us all a goodnight hug, and then he said, ‘Brian, stick with Abe and Rusty (Anderson, guitarist). They’ll show you the ropes. See you in five weeks.’ It wasn’t until then that I thought I was in better shape, but I still didn’t really buy it.
So what did you do? You had to assume you were going to be in the band on tour.
I went home and woodshedded; grew out my whiskers and worked away at it. I had a stack of CDs- no setlist- and I had a guitar, a bass, an acoustic, and a mic stand. For five weeks I stood there learning as many Beatles’ songs, Wings songs, and Paul songs as I could get my hands on. It wasn’t until the end of the first rehearsal when Paul said to us it sounded great that I thought, Oh, my God, I think I’m going on tour with Paul McCartney.
If you had to pinpoint qualities you possess that make you the right fit for this, what would they be?
That wouldn’t be for me to say. I really don’t know. I guess, good listener; good employee. I listen to what’s asked of me and I do what’s asked of me. I get along with my buddies. I’m a self-taught musician so I better listen well. (Laughs)
How do you balance the confidence it takes to believe you belong up there, playing these songs, in front of so many people, with the humility it takes to be a good listener and employee?
It’s a good question. A funny anecdote: The first day of the first rehearsal, before Paul had even arrived, on a soundstage in Culver City, getting to know the band and the crew, with all of mics at the front of what’s defined as ‘the stage.’ The mics are all on the same line, on the same plane, exactly, as Paul’s, at the front. I take my mic stand and start walking backwards with it. The tech manager asks me what I am doing. I said I’m going to just move my mic back a bit; be more comfortable back here. He says, Oh, no, no and walks the mic back up to the front. I wasn’t really ready for all that. But, I will also say, in a way, I was ready. I had toured in stadiums and arenas opening for the Rolling Stones and done everything in-between. Yes, you have to catch yourself if your head gets a little big. There’s a lot to think about; a lot to do. You have to keep your nose in the show.
I’m sure this experience has raised your public profile. How has that been for you?
It’s been okay. It’s the right size, the right scale of attention. It would be a lot harder to have a normal-feeling life as Paul or Ringo. That’s a whole different level. This is bite-sized, and fine for me. It is nice. I’ve been working since I was 18. It feels good.
I can imagine it’s also had a positive effect on your solo work.
Having a job like this gives me a baseline of comfort when I go and do my own stuff. Obviously, having the income from my work with Paul helps me to make the kind of records I want to make on my own, in the way I hear them; not compromised by budget. They’re getting played on SiriusXM radio and that’s very satisfying.
Take away the magnitude of the music and the crowd. What’s it like simply to play with Paul and these guys in this band every night?
They’re magnificent musicians. It’s very, very special. We all listen to each other and it’s all in the moment. It’s real. We don’t play with computerized, digitized tracks, with tempos clicking away in our heads, or a string line coming in that’s been pre-recorded. What you hear is us singing and playing in real-time with all the beauty and the mistakes. It’s real musicians going to work and you’re there experiencing it.